Where Good Ideas Come From: a Natural History of Innovation, By Steven Johnson

Go for a walk, follow your hunches, note it all down, and you could be the next Archimedes (apparently)

Peter Forbes
Sunday 07 November 2010 01:00 GMT

Where do good ideas come from? Well, I don't know about good ideas, but it's pretty obvious where Steven Johnson got the inspiration for his seventh volume of pop technologese – Malcolm Gladwell's third volume of pop economics, Outliers. That book related, with a Sybil Fawlty-like talent for stating the bleeding obvious, how success in everything from musicianship to middle-management is as much the result of good luck as hard graft. Who but a swivel-eyed free-market Tory, one fancied, could demur? In a culture weaned on the fantasy of the self-made man, anybody who was nobody proved keen to cling to Gladwell's not-at-all-contentious comfort blanket.

Where Good Ideas Come From is rather more controversial – though not in any meaningful way. Implicit in the arguments of this "Natural History of Innovation" is the idea that we are all capable of consciousness-changing, world-shattering insights – if only we can be bothered to ensure that our living- and working-spaces are designed to foster Eureka!-style moments.

It is true, of course, that certain environments are inimical to serious thought. Nobody ever had a good idea at a rave, for instance, where having no ideas is rather the point. Einstein, on the other hand, was adamant that it was the very dullness of his day job at the patent office that helped engender the special theory of relativity. Still, I can't see any of the corporate honchos targeted by Johnson's book hiring people who say they'll be bored if they come to work for them. And anyway, we're not all Einstein.

"We have a natural tendency," writes Johnson, "to romanticise breakthrough innovations, imagining momentous ideas transcending their surroundings, a gifted mind somehow seeing over the detritus of old ideas and ossified tradition." Well, yes, we do. Because though ideas may well be "works of bricolage... built out of that detritus", somebody did the building – and it sure as hell wasn't me; nor, in all probability, you. We all stand on the shoulders of giants, says Johnson, though he fails to point out that the taller among us will always see further than the shorter.

Not even Darwin is taller than Johnson, who cuts the great man down to size by adopting the historic present when discussing his work: "Darwin possesses the puzzle pieces but fails to put them together in the right configuration," writes the schoolmasterly Johnson, for all the world as if he were standing over young Charles and seeing just where the poor chap (who "fails to understand that he has the solution at his fingertips") is going wrong. "All of which means," concludes the teacher, that "we cannot say definitively that Darwin hit upon the idea for his theory of natural selection [in just one day] on September 28, 1838." But how small a brain would you need to believe that a theory as big as Darwin's could spring fully formed into even as capacious a bonce as his?

Bluntly, good ideas are the occasional by-product of the work of gifted people. You can follow all Johnson's advice about idea generation – about going for walks and nursing hunches and noting everything down – but without a mind large enough to take in the world on its own terms, you aren't going to come up with anything that changes the terms of the world. Blue-sky thinkers with their helicopter views will doubtless claim that Johnson's suggestions help them push the envelope, but the rest of us can see that his "adjacent possibles" and "liquid networks" are no more than the latest flimflam.

At one point, Johnson tries to convince us that ideas grow out of ideas the way the natural world synergises. Beavers gnaw down trees in which woodpeckers drill holes in which songbirds nest – and in some way, I forget quite how, it's all a bit like Twitter. Well, maybe. Reading this book, though, another analogy from nature kept riding into view. You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it think.

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